Monday, December 12, 2016

Book Review: Half Broke Horses

by Richard Grooms, Fiction Department, Central Library

Half Broke Horses
Jeannette Walls

A few years back I blogged on this site about Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, one of the most enjoyable reads of my life. I put off reading Half Broke Horses because I noticed it was officially fiction and I wanted another nonfiction experience like The Glass Castle. But the more I looked into Half, the more I realized that it’s largely nonfiction and that many of the book’s reviewers consider it so. It’s a bit complicated but Walls’ Author’s Note at the end of the book explains it well. More important than any of this is the fact that Half is a prequel to Glass, so if you found the first book absorbing, you’ll want to read the second. But the order of the books doesn’t matter: you can read them in any order you wish. At the very least, Half is another outstanding Walls book, not as outlandishly impressive as Glass, but marvelous anyway.

About that prequel bit. If you were fascinated by the eccentricities of Walls’ parents in Glass, you can find out where they came from in Half, because Half is about Walls’ grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, an entirely remarkable woman who is vividly evoked here. Smith, born in 1901, broke horses, flew airplanes, ran a bootleg liquor business, and played poker in an era when women overwhelmingly just didn’t do those things. Even the traditional things Lily did she did in an untraditional way. When she set out for her first teaching job, she traveled the only way you could: on horseback, solo, for hundreds of miles. Lily lived in the West in the early-to-mid-20th century, a time of enormous social change. The West she knew when she was young had many of the hallmarks of the classic West. As in Glass, Walls’ specificity and poetic use of language are an especial pleasure to read. Here she describes tornadoes in Salt Draw, Texas: “…sometimes when it had been especially dry, they were almost clear, and you could see tree limbs and brush and rocks swirling at the bottom. From a distance they seemed to be moving slowly, as if underwater, spinning and swaying almost elegantly.” Whether this (or any passage) is primarily Lily’s or Jeannette’s language we don’t know, and it doesn’t matter to me, but at the very least, the younger Walls has signed off on the text, and we can only thank her. Another of nature’s anomalies surfaces later, this time in New Mexico:
Dad hollered for us to come outside. I’d never heard him so excited. We ran out the door, and Dad was standing in the yard, pointing up at the sky. There, floating in the air above the horizon, was an upside-down town. You could see the low, flat stores, the adobe church, the horses tied to the hitching posts, and the people walking in the streets.... It was a mirage, a mirage of Tinnie, the town about six miles away….It was huge, taking up a big hunk of the sky, and I was mesmerized watching those upside-down people silently walking through those upside-down streets.
Evocative town names populate the book. Like Salt Draw, the ones where Lily taught during WW1 are some good ones: Cow Springs, Leupp, Happy Jack, Greasewood, Wide Ruin. Lily rode horses to get almost everywhere in those days. You can see why she was mad that President Taft got rid of the stables at the White House so he could have a garage installed. You can see why she taught Indians and why this made her always stand up for minorities. Lily wanted to preserve the Old West, but she was modern, too, and she wanted to reform the West as well. She was a pioneer and an instinctive feminist, but she probably didn’t know quite what a feminist was. These contradictions make for a wholly remarkable woman, to say the very least. She really didn’t care what anyone thought of her, and taught her kids the same. She married a Jack Mormon, protected her unmarried pregnant sister from the bluenoses, defied convention again and again. For a while I tried to fix her in history with my grandfather, born one year earlier, but gave up. Comparisons don’t work at all when it comes to Lily. A couple of her observations sound odd to me. She says ranchers “tended to treat Christmas like Prohibition, another Eastern aberration that wasn’t much concern to them.” I think here she’s generalizing from a particular, and romanticizing to boot.

You pick up interesting bits of Americana as you read, find out what a buckboard is, when to serve prairie oysters, what is meant by roof water and draws. (I never did find out what “stick a horse” means). You find out, too, that Lily and her husband Jim “weren’t much more than half broke horses themselves,” even though that phrase is used to describe the cowboys who live on the ranch Lily and Jim run, a gigantic concern of 180,000 acres. Drought hits the ranch hard, but history-making floods turn the land around: “… a few hours after the rain stopped, the plateau turned bright green, and the next day the ranch was covered with the most spectacular display of flowers I had ever seen…All that water must have churned up seeds that had been buried for decades.” Fiction or not, this is why I read.

Lily Smith resumes her teaching career again (easy to always start anew when you’ve been fired from more places than you can count). She educates Mormon polygamists in a place so remote “no teacher with a college degree wanted the job.” For Lily, not being degreed, like not being conventionally socialized, always meant opportunity. But Lily’s too modern for the polygamists, so she’s fired again and uses this to go teach the Havasu Indians who live in the bottom of the Grand Canyon and near the rim of it, depending on the season. As with the polygamists, no outsiders are around, except Lily. Though she soon finds out how the modern world has wrecked the Havasu, even she couldn’t truly comprehend the devastation they’ve suffered. When she consoles an Indian friend, telling him that negative thinking eats away at you, he tells her that “what turns to stone is inside you.” She doesn’t have an answer for that.

Later, back at the ranch, Lily sleeps next to her daughter so the cowboys won’t molest her. But she generally lets her children run about as free as the wind, letting them “fire at each other with slingshots and BB guns.” Not much helicoptering here. Lily had always believed that when you own land, they can’t take it away from you. But they took it from the Havasu and they will in time take it from her and Jim. They have no choice but to sell the ranch to Hollywood types who want to film westerns there. Just what the Hollywood types thought a ranch and cowboys should look like is hilarious, but Jim is too heartbroken to laugh much. He, Lily, the hired hands, the whole lot were just too scraggly, dirty and non-photogenic for the experts who know what kind of West Americans wanted to see up on the screen. The whole place needed a total overhaul, and Lily and family move to Phoenix. Did I mention the level of irony in this book?

Phoenix brings new things like doctors, false teeth, worry, air-raid sirens, traffic, noise, and feeling boxed in. It’s inevitable that Lily and Jim will move again, but daughter Rosemary won’t join them as she’s marrying Rex. These two will be Jeannette Walls’ parents, the parents in The Glass Castle, grade A eccentrics who, like their parents, won’t care what anyone thinks of them. They’ll be de facto Beat Generation members without probably even knowing what the Beats were all about. The stage is set for Glass.

The book, though not strictly factual as Walls admits, still has the ring of truth that the best oral family histories have. This is family history, and American history gets outlined by relief around the edges of the narrative. I wouldn’t have had much interest in a family story set in the West, but then Walls makes everything she writes interesting and even compelling. I now know the West of this era was even grittier than I thought, but also more lovely. This is a story that has nothing you'd expect. It’s far too quirky to qualify. It’s hard to imagine it being more of a success.

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